The 29 young women who gathered on the pristine green turf of the Centenary University baseball field in mid-August for Baseball For All’s first-ever scouting combine for women — a group looking to continue their baseball careers into college — all shared commonalities in their individual stories.
This has long been true of girls who love baseball, but that common story had an unhappy, early ending. It was always a series of set pieces — a coach urging them, either through habit or something more insidious, over toward the softball field. Those who stuck around and pushed through Little League encountered, before too long, a middle school or high school refusal.
But the real limitation on a future in baseball was a complete lack of infrastructure. Every girl who has wanted to play baseball, for the entire history of the sport, other than a few fits and starts, some more successful than others — the AAPGBL (the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League) the best example — eventually runs out of road.
And even those who manage to navigate the treacherous terrain all the way to striking out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig like Jackie Mitchell, or say, getting signed by a minor league team like Eleanor Engel, are quickly ruled out by men all the same. Imagine the thinking it takes to simultaneously believe women cannot play the game of baseball at a level close to men, a seemingly foolproof way of keeping the game men-only, and yet choosing to make rules against it happening.
It is not an accident that both Mitchell and Engel, chased from baseball, carried the scars for decades after.
So yes, the work of Justine Siegal, creator of Baseball For All, matters, not just in its goals, but in its scope. The creation of U8, U10, U12, U14 and U18 teams of girls around the country has turned a lonely road into one of shared experience, with more than 500 participants in this summer’s national tournament in Aberdeen, Maryland.
Instead of the story generations of women carry forward of regret — that moment they were forced to stop playing, not because of ability but because of misogyny — the stories of the women at the combine all start with a phone call.
Skylar Kaplan was experiencing the familiar trajectory — a travel team coach that was making her feel unwelcome, even as she managed to start and close her own game in a trip to play at Cooperstown Dreams Park. That’s when she got the call from Siegal.
“When I first heard from Justine, I was like, what? Other girls play baseball, too?” says Kaplan, sitting just outside the dugout where she was playing on one of two teams in the third exhibition game of the combine’s weekend. “I was always the only girl. I’d never seen another girl play baseball before.”
Kaplan changed travel teams — going on to beat her old team in a satisfying show of force over her former coach — and has continued pursuing her goal of playing college baseball, armed with a growing community who share what she had thought was her solitary dream. It helped nurture her through a high school that cut her, despite her evident ability, that coach offering the crumbs of maybe practicing with JV.
And it led to her playing this past season at Anne Arundel Community College, with Kaplan wanting the chance to next play for a four-year school.
But it isn’t so much about the destination. It’s about making sure the journey isn’t a lonely one, and that girls, like boys, get to play the game for as long as they wish, and have their abilities allow them to continue forward.
“I think this is like a great way to show people, or show younger girls, that you don’t have to stop,” says Kaplan. “You can play as long as you want to as long as you find that one person to say yes. Then you can go as far as you want to go. I think that’s really amazing.”
Justine Siegal experienced it the typical way, back when she wanted to play baseball forever. She turned down a Division I soccer scholarship to attend Beloit College, because that program had a no-cut baseball team.
When Siegal arrived, they cut her. Told her they’d run out of uniforms. That’s how her playing career ended.
So she’s created Baseball for All as a roadmap for girls, and women, who want to pursue a path that is hard enough — playing baseball at one level, then another — without blindly grasping for that future in the dark. She knows first-hand how difficult this road is. She’s done many things in baseball all the same — coaching for the Oakland A’s, throwing batting practice for the Tampa Bay Rays. She arrived at the combine from her other gig at the moment, serving as the baseball coach for the actors putting together the television production of the popular Penny Marshall film of A League of Their Own that starred Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. So she’s simultaneously in both the high point of the past and the future that plans to exceed it every single day. It’s exhilarating, but it’s also frustrating, Siegal says.
“I think we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us,” says Siegal, standing behind the home plate backstop, watching the game and operating the souvenir stand. Nearby parents on folding chairs take preferred spots around the perimeter of the field, and coaches, including Centenary’s Scott Kushner, take copious notes on their clipboards. “That’s clear. From Maria Pepe having to sue Little League for girls to play baseball,” she says. “I think that the fact that these girls are still fighting for the right to play baseball is ludicrous. It’s 2021. Why is girls playing baseball still a story?”
The structure of Baseball For All’s college initiative is so intuitive, so logical, it’s hard to believe it isn’t already in place. Moreover, that lack of access itself is the glaring proof that bad actors within this sport have pulled out all the stops to prevent women from playing.
Siegal reached out to every college with a men’s team and asked coaches whether they’d consider women if they tried out, receiving 130 positive responses so far. So that is a de facto list every girl with college baseball aspirations can utilize.
And the critical part of the initiative: pushing for the creation of women’s club teams, positioning the sport as a fall one. It means every college with a baseball field has a ready-made place for the games, and a roster of players who were pushed, often, into softball (also a spring sport) with a chance to resume their baseball careers.
The goal is to have 48 teams in three years — 12 initially, doubling each year — to qualify as an NCAA emerging sport, and ultimately, reaching varsity level.
And those who will seed these efforts can be found all over the country now, the high schoolers and collegiate trailblazers of the moment.
For the older players at the combine, their careers have largely consisted of building the plane as they flew it. Beth Greenwood is entering her senior season at University of Rochester. She first got that call from Siegal when she was 11. She’s developed into a stellar defensive catcher, earning some time on a University of Rochester team that won its league last season, and has designs on playing her post-graduate years at a program where she can get regular time in the lineup.
She’ll graduate from Rochester with a Mechanical Engineering major next spring.
Then there’s Luisa Gauci, a sparkplug of a second baseman who has worked at Driveline, the cutting-edge baseball academy. Gauci created a 20-80 scouting guide for women’s baseball to earn scholarship money so she could travel from her native Australia to America and play college baseball — which she is, now, for Green River Community College. With her current arm strength — it’s got to be second base for her. It’s simply a detail, Gauci remains utterly undeterred.
“I’ll still have two more years,” says Gauci, still in uniform, as we stood and chatted near the pitcher’s mound after the third game of the combine. “My plan is actually, in the next four years, to transfer to a division one school. And that’s my big plan. My big sellout. I’m putting everything on the table for that.”
The Division I school smart enough to give Gauci the opportunity to play is one yes away, and, in Gauci’s plan, will exist because she won’t stop until it does. After that, Gauci said, comes professional ball — affiliated or independent, whoever gives her a chance. From there, it’s onto coaching, where her scouting work, her time at Driveline and her on-field experience should make her an extremely coveted hire to begin coaching in some team’s system.
So really, it’s about colleges making opportunities for women to attract students like Greenwood and Gauci, not grudging nods to equality, that should spur growth. And Kushner — who has wanted to see women’s baseball thrive since seeing “A League of Their Own” in the theater with his mom one afternoon long ago pointed out — it is an awfully good way for colleges currently out of compliance with Title IX to add women in a sport with large rosters. The good news? There are loads of such colleges!
Then there’s the talent level — already sufficient, as Greenwood and others prove, to make it in college baseball — which is growing exponentially. Gauci has coached at Baseball for All events for years, and expressed amazement at how much better the players are each year. Greenwood spent most of the COVID year of 2020 working out with Maggie Foxx, a young catcher who at 15 is well ahead of what Greenwood was at that age. Greenwood sought Foxx out at the latter’s 12-year-old Little League all-star game a short drive from Greenwood’s New Hampshire home, adding to the girls’ baseball network in the Siegal tradition.
“I call her Beth 2.0,” Greenwood said with a smile.
Opportunity breeds quality, and for the younger girls coming up through this Baseball For All pipeline, the reps, the coaching, the encouragement all contribute to another level of quality in their play.
It was evident in the movement of players like Madison Jennings, 15, a high school sophomore at Oxbridge Academy in Palm Beach. She’s the starting shortstop on her varsity team — though she had to leave her summer league team after she couldn’t get on the field ahead of a player who made errors in droves at the vital position — but both her smoothness in fielding grounders and the strong arm getting the ball to first were evidence of a skilled young player who has gotten the reps early, the language of baseball built into her overall athleticism.
She left her summer league team, but not the game. And her Baseball For All time keeps her improving, helping her stay on course to get more playing time in high school as she pursues her goal of reaching college baseball. So is Kaitlin Maston, a 15-year-old first baseman who is playing for Coral Springs Charter — she made varsity as a freshman — with a smooth, line-drive swing that looks effortless and is, of course, a product of endless hours in the cage.
That’s part of the infield Foxx had behind her when she took the mound on Sunday, pitching to her mentor, Greenwood. Foxx got Gaby Velez, 20, to swing and miss on a high fastball for the first out. The two have known each other for years, Velez exclaiming “Why’d you do that to me?” with a smile as she returned to the dugout. Foxx got the next hitter swinging at the curve, her out pitch, and retired the side, thanks to her two-seamer, on a ground ball to Jennings, who fired it to first, Maston making the stretch to assure the out.
Even as she pitched to Greenwood, Foxx said she “learned so much from seeing what she does,” lessons for when Foxx gets back behind the plate herself.
To ensure that progress, all the players at the combine left Centenary with a final scouting report, extended interviews with Kushner and other coaches, a written guide to what they need to improve upon and the ability to ask questions of their own.
“I was really impressed with the smoothness with which you were attacking the ball, the transition from fielding to throwing,” Kushner says to Jennings, the two sitting in the Centenary dining hall going over her scouting report. “Getting rid of the ball across your body, across the diamond. That is a very difficult skillset, and it’s one that college guys that are playing right now sometimes struggle with. And the fact that you’re going to be a sophomore in high school? That’s incredible.”
Achievable goals were set — for Foxx, getting her pop time on throws to second from 2.4 to 2.2. For Greenwood? 2.0. For Gauci, whose scouting report pushed the limits of attitude and hustle even as she’s worked to overcome her arm-strength issues, it was about finding ways to be as efficient as possible with her movements to compensate.
But there’s no “if not” in Gauci’s view. The biggest shift in the paradigm for Gauci and the players at Baseball For All is that they’ll continue forward, recharged by the growing cadre of young women playing the game and encouraging one another, pushing forth into this largely male enclave knowing they are not the only ones working to change it. Even the younger players like Jennings and Maston, when they outline their futures, see coaching in it, so they can continue growing the sport. The story is changed forever, and there’s no longer an endpoint beyond what a player’s own limits turn out to be.
And with college baseball established — within ten years in Siegal’s view, as an NCAA varsity sport, with 20,000 girls and women playing, and colleges competing for the best talent — Siegal knows what that pipeline’s next destination is: women’s professional baseball. Not the re-creation of the past like she’s seeing on the A League of Our Own set, where Baseball for All players like Kaplan pretend to be a Kenosha Comet, but a league for the 21st century, fully integrated, no skirts or charm school, a fully realized endpoint of the dreams and goals every American boy has as a birthright.
That’s important for the very best talents in the game, but truly, it is significant for every girl getting told she matters. Asked about what’s changed in Skylar Kaplan since Siegal first met her when she was 11, Siegal responds dryly: “She talks now.”
Greenwood’s scouting report from the weekend cited her eagerness to take charge, and she said that it was a product of feeling comfortable at Baseball For All as her Rochester coach has urged her to speak up more when she’s playing with the guys.
“I’m just trying to empower these girls to believe in themselves,” says Siegal. “And that happens through baseball. It’s this Catch-22. Because boys get to just play baseball, right? Girls have to be confident enough to step up and play the game. So it’s this double mission of building up leadership skills and building up the confidence to be who you want to be. And then you get to play the game.”